Wednesday, July 26, 2023


Barry Alfonso In Santee, “drying the cat by hand” means taking a single woman out to dinner, saying flattering things to her, picking up the check and then giving her the phone number of your brother-in-law, I understand.

Ted Burke It has been said that “drying the cat” means mispronouncing the names of jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman in a Telegraph Avenue methadone clinic. “Drying the Cat By Hand” is a variation heard in the Tenderloin and up to North Beach, meaning that you announce to Amiri Baraka that Boots Randolph played better sax than Coltrane or Shorter.

Barry Alfonso I've also heard that it is a derivation of the old blues expression “shave 'em dry," meaning to cut off the head of a glass of beer with a straight razor before attacking someone in the solar plexus over a Stetson hat.

Ted Burke I've heard tell of that as well, and it makes me wonder if that is related to the practice of ordering a shot and beer and a dry towel twisted into a rat tail and snapped cruelly to the back of the drinker's bare neck by everyone in the bar named either "Earl" or "Ondine".

Barry Alfonso A lot of this has been lost and confused over the years, I suspect—a “dry cat” used to be slang for a guy with a flat top and bad dandruff. It was a custom to rub scalps like that for luck before a dice game or before rubbing spices into a jerk chicken leg, or both. It also relates to martinis and obscene gestures while sinking a putt.

Ted Burke There was the habit among dairy farmers of rubbing their bovines with mewing kittens for no real reason; "drying the cow" became "drying the cat" over time, an understandable conflation, and the implication of the phrase is that one is standing around irritating another living creature for no good reason. But since when does anyone need a good reason to irritate someone?
6 hours ago ·
Barry Alfonso That's right! Now I remember. Will Rogers did a bit about this and in fact got arrested in Tulsa for demonstrating how it was done. There's a famous photo of Junior Samples from Hee Haw "drying the cat by hand" behind Stringbean's back when he thought the cameras were off.
6 hours ago ·
Ted Burke *Absolutely! This in turn inspired Pynchon's famous opening line of his magnum opus 'The Crying of Litter Box 29". "A dry cat came screamng across the sky..."
5 hours ago ·
Barry Alfonso Right, that was a literary in-joke for many years standing. Hemingway took a swing at Frank Yerby after he wrote that Papa had been drying the cat with both hands for years...
5 hours ago ·

Ted Burke On a related note, Norman Mailer misunderstood Russell Kirk when he announced that what really wanted was a "cat dried by hand". Mailer took this to be a translation of Parsian street slang used among working girls meaning that the person who uttered the phrase was in desperate need of being buggered, but that lacked the needed ticket for admission.Mailer told Kirk that he had his ticket "right here" and demanded Kirk "give up the cat." William Buckley was amused by the whole thing and had Mailer on his TV show several times.

Barry Alfonso Well, I do remember Gore Vidal giving Buckley the hairy eyeball on TV during the '68 Democratic convention and saying, "You really are drying the cat by hand a little hard tonight, old boy" while Buckley let something slip that Al Gore was a monster on the congas at a nephew's confirmation party . Seems that the band turned out to be GWAR who suddenly became a Santana cover band. Nothing was the same from then on, though the quality of the monotony hadn't changed a bit.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Typing lesson


Some years ago, that is, many years ago when I started this blog, I had the intention of writing an annual report on the state of my sobriety as each anniversary came and went. Something like a report card, a progress report, a mild and very generalized confession of mistakes, bad ideas, bad acts and the attempts to repair whatever damage I caused by making decisions on my wants (not needs) and try to extract a lesson that might be learned from the past year's rash action. That was the idea, but when it came down to it, even though I love to write, and I love to talk and that I love to refer to myself quite a bit in the paragraphs I construct, confession isn't my game, memoirs are not my jam. In the grand scheme of things, my self referencing needs to be anchored to topics that interest me or are the absolute center of my reason to push on another day--literature, films, movies, sex, the Good Fight against Bad People, poetry, always poetry. Maybe when I get to be 73 I'll be moved to spill the beans on a life that's been interfered with by an odd combination of bad self-esteem and arrogance of the first rank. I just turned 71 yesterday, and today I am supposedly celebrating 36 years of continuous sobriety, so that gives me a couple of turns around the sun to evolve into my next form, a humble narcissist, with the product being a long and adjective choked recollection of all the small incidents that leads us up to the current period, sometime in the future, when either everything or nothing is changed.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023


 So in the nineties I was in a men's intimacy group, a number of sober guys who wanted to share personal matters, issues, confliction, and compulsions with other sober men on level much deeper and more personal than what offer

up at a standard AA meeting. So this fellow, an alcohol treatment counselor ironically, had just finished a very long monologue on his sexual hangups, with a good number of side trips  through other subjects that managed to be both greasy and banal, and when he stopped talking, the rest of us rose from our seats, chairs, the two sofas that were crammed in this studio apartment . So this fellow from South Oakland , whose apartment it happened to be, had TV set hooked up to a VHS player, and a lone, unmarked cassette laying on top of it. 

"Let's  TAKE A BREAK AND RELAX, FELLAS." So the guy from South Oakland grabbed the cassette and shoved into the video player. So then the from treatment with the curated sexual hangups looked up to the screen. So then you could nearly hear his jaw drop. Imagine a rusty creak, a loud , rasping scrape of severely oxidized metal. 

Porn stars flashed on the tv screen, wherein guys in seventies porn mustaches were putting their engorged presences anywhere the actresses would allow. Mod Squad music, cheesey fuzz- tone guitars and Farfisa fantasias, poured from the TV's tinny speaker. 

"Yeah" Mr.South Oakland muttered,"Get that, hit that, fug, this is the stuff..." The room filled  with cigar smoke and reeked of coffee left on the burner too long as both porn movies and comatose confessions of sexual impropriety filled the room.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Pablomatic for the people


Gadfly Patrick Marlborough offered something of a defense of Australian quasi-comedian Hannah Gadsby's critical and creaky post-feminist takedown of Picasso with a piece claiming to detail what Americans are missing about her show. It's because Americans are unfamiliar with the Australian vernacular, goes the article's claim. You might expect a brief linguistics lecture to be offered here, since it couldn't be anything as obvious that maybe Gadsby isn't really all that funny. 

It's clear from the outset that Gadsby's has no love for the artist, and is committed to debunking his myth and exposing his misogyny with a late comer's vigor. (I seem to remember quite a few books and magazine articles about Picasso over the decades that hanged him in effigy for being a brute and all-purpose lout, but no matter). If enough people “miss” what an artist is trying to do or attempting to tell us / teach us/ lecture us about, and if it takes a nervously apologetic essay in a major online platform to direct us to the wisdom that was waiting for us, it's a safe bet the artist flubbed the chance to do anything interesting at. 

It's impossible for every misunderstood artist to be an anonymous genius. The odds are not good for even most of them to be any good as visual artists.  The more I think about, it seems to be the case that most artists striving to make big statements in abstract fashion are rather muddle-headed fools who have the talent, none of the less, to secure grant money to fund their projects and pay their rent. Her worst sin, it appears, is the smug obviousness of what she's up to with Picasso. Naming this project with the anemic and obvious pun “Pablo-Matic” previews a level of banality that is ironically break—taking. Is this comedy? Criticism? Post-feminist grave digging? Is this any sort of attempt to get us to see Picasso differently through a specifically focused lens? It is none of these things. Worse, it's none of the things in any interesting way. It's a slight shrug of the shoulder, a flat punchline, a cocked head, a side glance, another shrug, another try at irony.  All gesture, no ideas. 

Monday, May 29, 2023

Succession ends it.


At last, we come to the absolute end of HBO's family / business drama Succession and for that, ending all storylines after the series' fourth season, is a favor that cannot be understated. Showtime's business fiction Billions, coming soon for a seventh season, has gone from a guilty pleasure where a viewer of average income can observe fictional billionaires behaving as biblical swine would, which is badly, immorally, narcissistic. But what should have stopped at a fourth or perhaps a fifth season has sped by, all the signs that it was time to start wrapping things up. The show concerns how powerful people in high-level law enforcement offices and in high stakes financial companies gain, lose and regain advantage in scenarios that have lost any sort of aspect of the thrill of it all. So, here comes season 7. With any luck, it will be the final year, albeit two seasons too late. The show was already a live action cartoon, an enjoyable one, but the plot points it's staked out for its next go round will be the kind of chronic sensationalism Showtime habitually extends beyond the entertainment value. 

For Succession, it's obvious that they've preferred tragedy to mean-spirited slapstick, and it is clear that the character arcs set out by the writers have led us through these four seasons to a situation that is painfully, obviously without resolution: what I'll say is that despite the wealth of these characters, it's a sure bet among viewers that it won't end well by the time one makes their way to the movie length final episode of Season 4. This is a collective tragedy, not an individual one, the fatal flaw being that the three main siblings have spent all the seasons trying to please a cruel father, even after Logan’s problem-causing death. Either they were trying to curry favor with him while he lived and secure control of the corporate structure after his eventual parting, or they were setting out to act in ways they thought Logan would approve of after his death rattle. Even with nominal control of the corporation as the deal was pending with GoJo, they could not act as Logan did, which was brutally and unapologetically decisive. Ken, Shiv and Roman were full of destructive ambivalence that prevented the trio from acting as a unified team of legacy owners or as individual agents able to devise strategy, implement plans, effectively see situations clearly, for what they were and not as they wished they were. I have a fondness for watching talented actors portray well-developed jerks, and I genuinely appreciated how skillfully the writers and show runners crafted a world of wealth, power, and outrageous privilege, populated by self-obsessed characters oblivious to the realities of everyday life. The exploration of themes such as generational cycles of abuse and the pervasive grip of collective narcissism was striking, particularly in the intensely articulated squabbles between the siblings and the peripheral characters. It became evident that they were attributing their problems to a world that they believed existed solely to cater to their corrosive whims and caprices.

What struck me as remarkable was the fact that none of the main characters ever walked the streets of the cities they inhabited, nor did they drive cars. Instead, they flew to different cities and countries on private jets, were chauffeured in tinted limousines to hotels, residences, or corporate offices, all while remaining completely detached from the local population. The way they treated each other was abhorrent, obscene, rude, brutal, and at times even psychotic. It was uncomfortable to witness, yet undeniably presented in a splendid and occasionally brilliant manner, revealing the depths of their pettiness and vanity and showcasing their irredeemable nature. In a very contemporary sense, this series can be considered a tragedy. It lacks a hero with a fatal flaw or a central character who possesses good intentions for the world but believes themselves to be the sole savior of the universe. Instead, it is saturated with excessive and toxic pride, embodied by a group of deluded and inept individuals. The presence of hubris is an essential aspect of the tragedy genre, and it becomes evident that the Universe, in some way, senses the disruption caused by the hubris and acts to restore balance. This often leads to a tragic end for the protagonist, who meets their fate through circumstances they have themselves created.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

SHORT NOTES ON OLD ALBUMS: Larry Coryell, Michael Urbaniak, Dave Holland , Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, The Who

This is a concert video of the late jazz guitar master Larry Coryell and the amazing Polish jazz-fusion violinist, originally released on VHS I believe, that hasn't been released as a stand-alone disc. I pray someone will secure the rights and make it available. Coryell was a member of the original Super Guitar Trio with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia, and though his playing was frequently brilliant, he was often hobbled with flubs and miscues; it became obvious that LC's dependence on drugs and hooch lessened his skills, and he was replaced by the ever able Al diMeola. Coryell got clean and sober in 1981 and this effort, recorded in 1982, shows the difference. It's a remarkable performance, thanks in major portions to Urbaniak, whose skills as an improviser are second to none; his unstitched combining of styles ranging from Grapelli through Ponty and his mastery of idiom, technique and tonal nuance gives LC the colorful contrast. Urbaniak's impromptus are swift and melodic and, as with Coryell, seem without end in the configurations his long lines of notes form.  He has a bass player's instincts as well, and supports  Coryell's ultra-virtuoso fantasias. Coryell at this time seems like a man with something to prove, and here he demonstrates his point in spades.


By the 90s, I was listening to jazz almost exclusively, in addition to works by old rock heroes who were still recording at the time. It was a great decade for forward reaching jazz. A favorite was Dave Holland's album Extensions, 1990, highlighting the limitless improvisational talents of the assembled band, Steve Coleman (sax), Kevin Eubanks (guitar), Marvin Smith (drums) and Holland on bass. The compositions, two a piece by Coleman, Eubanks, and Holland, are vibrant and tonally rich launching points for extending forays and exchanges of ideas. Coleman is especially superb with his ability to offer packed choruses and place the lines in directions you don't expect. Eubanks is a revelation, as I had only known him until this record as the leader of Jay Leno's TV band, where he seemed a willing sort to be the sidekick. He is a fiery guitarist, however, and serves up an unexpectedly fierce and fusiony onslaught of well amped and distorted ideas. The work of Holland Smith throughout has a malleable and organic pulse that makes this session swing, rock, soar and sooth all at once. A remarkable record.


Trumpeter Miles Davis is known as a man with great taste to highlight the work of great sax players in his bands--Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Sonny Rollins. Add Sonny Stitt. Often derided as a knock-off of Charlie Parker, an grossly unfair charge, Stitt is shown here as lyrically expressive, technically sublime and engagingly melodic improviser for establishes his ideas of bebop chromaticism to the music's superb body of energy. Davis, in fine form here with his brief statements, quick , surgically inserted note clusters and his pure, nearly vibratoless tone --not to mention his genius use of space between his solos--has made it a working habit to pare his own minimalist expressiveness against busier second voices like Coltrane and later John McLaughlin. With his band, with peerless support from alto and tenor saxophones, Wynton Kelly, piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and Jimmy Cobb, drums--we have Stitt in that position. His choruses are choice, crowded but not crowding. Recorded sometime during the 1960s, according to some vague notes on the CD.


The Who's first two-record rock opera Tommy,1969, is a masterpiece of managing to tell a delicately elliptical story through multiple voices and still rock proudly. It's Pete Townshend at this peak as a songwriter, as he puts forth selections in a variety of deftly handled styles. The feeling that this work is for all time was cemented in 1992 when the LaJolla Playhouse debuted The Who's Tommy as a live action theater production. Imagined and directed by eccentric director Des McAnuff, the production was engagingly flashy , and effective, but the smartest decision was to not flesh out, to "fill in" the vaguer gaps on the album's narrative with yet more narrative in the form of voice over or in spoken, not sung dialogue. They essential produced the album everyone was familiar. The musical arrangements matched the instrumentation of the original release, which added to the excitement of the live experience. So what else for the genius of Pete Townshend to follow? Oddly, strangely, he and the Who brought us Quadrophrenia, a double disc that was everything Tommy wasn't, which was humorless, musically monotonous, self-serious, muddled in concept and story telling, grandiose, pretentious. I seem to be a chorus of one with this. Here's a longish rant about that album from a few years ago , also on this blog.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

D'S "T"

Dylan is a word slinger to be, maybe a genuine poet during some parts of his oeuvre. Still, he is not a writer, not as we know the word, a craftsman, an artist, a professional who makes sentences that start somewhere and set the tone for the sentence that follows. That is, writers, write things that make sense in some respect, as in you understand clearly the thing being described, or that you understand it more abstractly and realize that the writer is undertaking a task that tries to deal with several things--philosophical notions, contradictory arguments, overlapping historical data --and bringing a coherent framework to understand complex matters, or at least come away with a sense of what the writer is getting at.

Even Dylan's wildest lyrics, from Desolation Row to his more recent brilliance noteworthy Rough and Rowdy Ways: surreal or nonsensical as the stanzas may be, the line limits and the need to rhyme imposed restrictions on Dylan's musings. He needed to wrap up his investigations into his more obscure imaginings. He gave you something to talk about. Tarantula was written on the road, in hotel rooms, on tour, rattled off in high doses of speed, and maybe other drugs too inane to bother talking about, and it indeed reads like it, snub-nosed Burroughs, Kerouac without the jivey swing. Some parts make you laugh, some good lines abound. Yet, it suffers in that readers wanted their hero, the poet of their generation, to write a genuinely good of poetry or some such thing, with true believers tying themselves in self-revealing knots to defend the book that is interesting as an artifact to the historical fact of Dylan's fame and influence and not much else. There is a part I like, effective as poetry, a bit of self-awareness that shows that Dylan realizes that his persona is false, a conspiracy between himself and the major media, and that he might have to account for the construction somewhere in the future of the whole matter.

Tarantula, an experimental prose poetry collection Dylan wrote between 1965 and 1966, wasn’t intended for publication, but its existence became an underground legend, and bootleg editions began to circulate. Tarantula was finally printed in 1971. The book wasn’t a coherent thesis but rather reflected Dylan’s method and influences, which characterized his most baroque and lyrics, similar in style to the “cut up” technique fashioned by William Burroughs in his novels Naked Lunch and The Wild Boys: a major transgression against grammar and punctuation and notions of continuity, rough-hewn character sketches, in jokes, odd conflations of vernaculars that constitute Dylan’s most hallucinogenic writing. Although there are some striking and evocative tributes to Aretha Franklin, it remains a head scratcher even for the most faithful of his flock. This lane-changing collection of idiomatic invention and deconstruction is, if nothing else, an odd and sometimes exhilarating landmark in on the Dylan bookshelf.

Friday, April 28, 2023


Honestly, I love critics who are smart and love the sound of their prose so much that they soak their subject in overripe, purplish grandiloquence, which makes getting to their usually inane insights a fun adventure in well-managed if excessively mannered evaluations of popular culture. The present example is the photograph accompanying his piece, a review of an Elvis Presley album by a G.C. Burke, no relation, in the May 1957 issue of High-Fidelity magazine. (My thanks to music writer Mark Miller, who posted this intriguing specimen in a Facebook group dedicated to music journalism.)

Perhaps not so oddly, I feel some kinship with Mr. Burke and wonder if he’s a distant and likely belated relation. I read John Simon for years in New York Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and The National Review, and often marveled at how a man of such obvious erudition and flawless prose ability could be so magnificently elegant in expressing amazingly pedestrian opinions of books, plays, films, and movies. His vitriol couldn’t elevate his sour takes on the arts from the routinely knee-jerk reaction. I wager that Simon’s vocabulary and acerbic virtuosity buffaloed his readers and editors with the flashy pyrotechnics of his word-slinging; what I thought of as Simon’s conspicuous ineptitude as a critic of cultural expression was summarily overlooked.

Burke obviously wants to consider himself a public intellectual, a mission much greater than being a mere record reviewer, and here attempts to pigeonhole the ill-making cultural habits of the times that are spoiling the rest of us. Sophistry itself, this amateur sociology and such, but what fun it is to read a smart person use every weapon in his arsenal to swat a fly. But again, honestly, quite honestly, quite vainly, G.C. Burke’s makes me think that those of us sharing the last Irish-borne surname share a genetic fascination for padded hyperbole. (Forgive me my indulgence if I’ve elevated myself to the likes of Edmund and Kenneth Burke, genius scribblers both.) Obviously, it would seem, that I’m inspired to indulge my verbal excesses after reading G.C. Burke’s energized dalliance with the philosophical broadside. Perhaps I can find a collection of his further thrashings of pop musicians of his time and become insufferable myself.

Nina Simone Deserved Better


Watched the controversial film Nina , a 2016 production written and directed by Cynthia Mort and starring Zoe Saldaña as the brilliant and troubled pianist/vocalist/songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone. The main bit of controversy was the casting for the title role, emphasizing that Saldana is "too pretty" and too light skinned to portray the iconic Simone, a nearly forgotten artist who has had interest in her career revived due to a fine recent documentary, Nina Simone:What Happened? .The charges seem trivial, but the game Saldana underwent the indignity of having to appear, literally, in black face to have her resemble the dark-skinned Simone more closely. She looks ridiculous, as if she were showing up for a minstrel show audition. The film itself is an impressionist mess, going back and forth in time, rummaging distractedly through events in Simone's whirlwind life, never really finding a set of experiences a tangible, sympathetic character might emerge. No one really seems to believe in what they're doing, which is a shame. Simone deserved a much better telling of her story.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Birthdays are fatal

Last February, comedian Lauren Vinopal proposed in Slate that we lower the critical mass of stress and anxiety of our time by abolishing birthdays. You know the drill, I gather, that the ritualized marking of another year of life is a "trigger" for many, too many because it serves as a brutal reminder of how little we've accomplished in our time so far on the planet. And getting older and closer to your last birthday instead of your first one adds another burden to one's sense of the failure they think they've been in the time they've been allotted so far. Ah, triggers, nasty things to be avoided, lest our feelings get hurt, and psychic wounds drive us to further paranoid isolation. Avoiding stressful ideas, words, issues in daily affairs seems a dubious cure, though. Any one of a million things can be "triggers" for increased depression, anxiety and, yes, suicide. 

Obsessed avoidance of triggers just appears to create more triggers, an odd self-fulfilling prophecy. Existence can be said as one sustained trigger, a never-ending stimulant on the nerves that alerts you to the need that there are matters in the world around you that need to be contended with. However, banning birthdays to alleviate these wretched conditions won't help anyone who truly suffers; life is one massive trigger, as such, for creating situations the emotionally fragile will react poorly to. Holidays, movies, comic books, 24 hour news channels, porn, drugs, alcohol, New Age sophistry, white supremacists, featherbedding politicians, fashion models, tall buildings, improperly set tableware, smooth jazz, raging bebop, classical music, anything on Nickelodeon… 

Where do we start on this project to rid society of properties that make living inside our skins and inside our heads a riot of emotions, with all kinds of metaphorical chairs being thrown across the brain pan? Or better, when do we stop demanding that problematic elements within the consumer culture be banned, canceled or more severely chastised and repudiated and instead summon the political will to provide Americans with a substantially improved and easily accessible health care system that includes a range of mental health provisions that can help the psychologically troubled to live fuller lives?  You would assume that the obvious answer is an easy one, though a difficult one and ongoing, to help fellow citizens live in society, not shield them from it.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Mike Keneally's New Prog Rock

 Legend has it that Mike Keneally was hired by Frank Zappa in 1988 as a “stunt guitarist,” because the eccentric composer realized he couldn’t do justice to the increasingly dense music he was writing at the time. He toured with Zappa that year as both guitarist and keyboardist to deserved acclaim. Keneally worked with Dweezil Zappa, Steve Vai, Henry Kaiser, and Andy West. A multi-instrumentalist of the highest fashion, his music has been far more than the Cuisinart virtuosity that makes so many rock pick-wielder studio efforts a test of one’s tolerance for relentless displays of technique. Keneally has broad musical literacy and has revealed his acumen as an electric and resourceful composer for his elevated guitar skills.

Context is everything when one labors to bring an outsized instrumental technique to effective musical application, but we find that Keneally is fluid and fluent in styles and genres he constructs for his superhuman skill set. His qualities as composer and arranger are on full and ample display on his recent release, The Things that Knowledge Can’t Eat. As with his previous boundary-straddling records, these nine new songs are a consummate fusion of off-kilter eclecticism, highlighting evident traces of prog-rock and excursions in tone-poem expressionism that would be difficult for mortals to bend to their creative will. Keneally has the needed moxie to make all the parts of a piece. No matter how odd the meter, how propulsive the rhythm, how abrupt the shifts from suggestion of free jazz to a gracefully amorphous melody that swells with a painterly sense of color and contrast, this album displays a grand mastery of the idioms he employs. Trust me, the excitement is witnessing a rare artist handily reinvigorating and reinventing the old ways of mere mastery of all the moving parts. Rather, he’s made something new and vibrant.

To be precise, Keneally’s music is art rock of a new kind. The Things that Knowledge Can’t Eat is an enticing and stitchless merging of different means of provocation. It constantly surprises and slips into an unexpected rhythm, oozes seductively from glorious folkish balladry to outré extravaganzas. The open track, Logos, is a Zappaesque bit of vocalese, a slightly strident chorus with a chirpy vocal line expounding on the wonders of a friend’s company logo—or personal logo—an inane sentiment undermined by the percolating, whack-a-mole near-dissonance of the music. Keneally, we note here, is not merely an instrumental wunderkind but also a literate and oddball lyricist as well, able to mimic voices or create personas who free associate about their place in the world. He has a particular skill for using non sequiturs, which adds to the absurd tragedy he writes about, how material things meant to make us happy only deepen our melancholy.

“Cell,” an instrumental assemblage that seems vast and nearly oceanic in its flow through a robust array of moods, is a wordless contemplation that has us navigating the sweep and sway of sonic waves. It’s a masterful construction that features two adeptly situated improvisations by guest guitarist Steve Vai, another veteran of Zappa’s touring band. Vai is nearly without peer in the top tier of innovative fret-maestros, and demonstrates this in both solos, combining the expected variety of tone and fluidly from alternative blues intonations to hard-shred attacks to jazz-like note excursions.

I should say again is that Mike Keneally is an intriguing lyricist, a rare quality in musicians who’re best known to the general music audience for their guitar chops. Obviously inspired by the cutting satire and acerbic commentary of mentor Zappa, he’s forged his book of lyrics that reveal an author’s awareness of what’s happening in the world around him. As often as not, his lyrics make one think of a person ruminating over an insoluble problem or undefinable emotion; there’s an elliptical juxtaposition of specific detail, bewildering elisions, and purposeful gaps in the narrative. Very often you come away not understanding of what Keneally is talking about but remain confident that you “get” what he’s getting: that elusive feeling, the shining insight, the rush of intense joy or sadness that vanishes before you can come up with the words to define what you felt. Good lyricists inclined to write in the crisply diffuse cadences of modern American poetry can do that. Keneally does this very well, and I’d recommend close and repeated listens to the songs. The lyrics are set in artfully eclectic settings, private thoughts, and half-heard musings, synchronized with flawless craft with the array of odd time signatures and passages that reflect the edges of metal and math rock. Anger, rage, joy, ambivalence, sympathy, despair—the word sheet touches on all these.

I have to come back to this overview of Keneally’s spectacular disc, with appropriate raving for the instrumental called “Ack.” Keneally is a multi-instrumentalist, as has already been mentioned, playing the majority of instruments on most of the nine tracks. But with “Ack” he receives bravura support from an exceptional troupe of musicians. It explodes as a jacked-up swing song, rapid tempo and horn choruses adroitly burn down the ballroom. But it soon morphs into some attractively splintered bars of dissonance that bring us near the outer-space experiments of prime Sun Ra. It then shifts rapidly into a breathless bebop chase, finally segueing into a scorching shred solo by Keneally and easing into an orgy of high contrast tonal color. This is what art rock should be doing, subverting expectations, switching up old styles, and creating new dimensions from them. Michael Keneally has the capacity to surprise the musical curious. This musician is a category unto himself.